Bidwell & Co. were traveling slowly southward through Cache Valley, in what is now northern Utah. Sometimes they followed the Bear River, other times they had to leave the river and “journey over hills and ravines, going to almost every point of the compass to avoid them.” It was August, the weather was hot, and basically they were lost.
“Thursday, 19th. Started early hoping soon to find fresh water [they had found none the day before], when we could refresh ourselves and our animals, but alas! The sun beamed heavy on our heads as the day advanced, and we could see nothing before us but extensive arid plains, glimmering with heat and salt. At length the plains became so impregnated with salt that vegetation entirely ceased; the ground was in many places white as snow & perfectly smooth–the mid-day sun, beaming with uncommon splendor upon these shining plains, made us fancy we could see timber upon the plains, and wherever timber is found there is water always. We marched forward with unremitted pace till we discovered it was an illusion, and lest our teams should give out we returned from S. to E. and hastened to the river which we reached in about 5 miles.”
It sounds like they were wandering around the Bonneville Salt Flats, but that area is further west. They were actually a few miles north of the Great Salt Lake, in a similar desert region that is still largely uninhabited.
The water was so salty that they couldn’t use it, and yet they had to use it or die of thirst. “It would not quench thirst, but it did save life.” They would spend several days in this perilous region before they found good water.